Philly Shows Potheads Some Brotherly Love

By Tony O’Neill and Jeff Forester 07/13/11

Backdoor measure to loosen up on city's stoners saves money, but draws slings.

Cost-effective compassion.
Photo via centercityrealestate

The Obama administration may be clamping down on medical marijuana, but Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams talks about his city’s new liberal approach to pot use in a fascinating interview over at Williams explains what he calls the SAM, or Small Amount of Marijuana program, which the city implemented a year ago: “For far too long we … clogged our courts and took up valuable time that assistant district attorneys and police could have devoted to cases involving firearms and other forms of violence.”  Williams also notes the savings the city has realized—$2 million by his estimate—and how the program has freed up prosecutors to concentrate on more serious crimes than booking and processing stoners. Under the new program, possession of less than 30 grams of marijuana is treated as a summary offense instead of a misdemeanor.  When offenders pick the SAM program, there are no legal fees, no formal discovery, no drug testing of “green leafy substance,” no subpoenas, no court costs... and no criminal record for the offender. Under the old system, a small pot bust could cost you up to $500 dollars in fines, 30 days probation, and even jail time. Under the SAM program, marijuana offenders pay $200 for a three-hour class about drug abuse, and are left with a clean record once the class has been completed.  Said Williams at a budget hearing: “This is faster, cheaper—and actually yields more significant penalties. We were spending thousands of dollars for when someone possessed $10 or $15 worth of weed. It just didn’t make any sense.” More than 4,000 people enrolled in the SAM program during its first year.

Of course, not everybody is happy about what some are calling “backdoor decriminalization.”  Former Philly DA Lynne Abraham adamantly believes that the program is a failure, despite the enticing financial figures.  Abrahams claims that “untold numbers” of crimes are committed by pot smokers (although she didn’t offer concrete figures).  When asked about the polls that show growing support for marijuana legalization, Abraham remains unmoved. "Don't tell me about polls. I don't want to hear it," Abraham reportedly said. "People want to drive 100 miles an hour. They want to smoke pot. They want to do everything!"

But advocates see the SAM program as part of a larger movement towards marijuana decriminalization. “Drug prohibition is the biggest failed policy in the history of our country, second to slavery,” said Jim Gray, a former Superior Court judge in Orange County, who now works with the advocacy group Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP). Williams too has begun to see the war on drugs in a different light. “We have to treat drug addiction as a public-health problem, not just a criminal-justice problem,” he said.  “I can put someone in jail for 90 days because they possess crack.  But if we don’t get them the help they need for their addiction, when they get out of jail, they’re just going to be a 90-day-older crack addict.”

Please read our comment policy. - The Fix